Most people find networking a bit awkward and feel unsure of how to go about navigating and starting conversations with strangers. But if you want to unlock new opportunities, grow your community, and expand your perspectives, then networking is essential.
The good news is once you get a bit of experience and establish your repertoire of conversation starters + builders, you’ll find you’re much more confident and start to really enjoy networking.
And I am here to help you do just that! Use this 3-part mini-Networking 101 guide to help you navigate your next networking conversation.
START THE CONVERSATION
This is the part most people find daunting. How do you actually go speak to people you’ve never met and just spark up a conversation?
Depending on the situation, there are a few options that help me join in on a conversation.
“Hey can I join in? What are we talking about? “
Works well when there is a group that you can join – you recognize you have joined in and help maintain the flow of conversation. You then have a follow up opportunity to share your thoughts and demonstrate any relevant thought leadership.
Or if someone is on their own, switch it up with “Hey can I join you? [insert open-ended question]”
Someone on their own are one of the easiest opportunities to spark up a networking conversation. They are there to be spoken to, so don’t be afraid to spark a new conversation with one of your open-ended questions. You’ll find that soon enough someone will be joining in with your group.
“Can I come crash your conversation? What are we talking about?”
A technique like this is less formal but has a bonus of making people laugh by lightly acknowledging the sometimes awkward nature of networking. It helps cut the tension and break down a formality barrier.
“I found X really interesting about what you said – [insert question]”
This answer is a triple whammy – it shows you engaged with the content, they can get to know you through what you ask, and it starts a conversation. You want to be memorable so asking insightful questions and engaging thoughtfully with the answer by adding to their response, sharing your opinion, or asking follow up questions all helps to cement you in their mind.
KEEP THE CONVERSATION GOING
Once you have joined, ask open-ended questions to keep the conversations going.
You want to learn about them – not just what they do, but what they enjoy in life and are motivated by. These extra pieces of information help build a more personable and memorable relationship and begin to reveal how you can build a mutually beneficial relationship.
Good networking does not start with what they can do for you – you should really be thinking about “how can I demonstrate or provide value to them” first such that you are someone they respect, want to work with, and would want to help, if you may need it, down the line. That may be helping them out with something, giving advice, or even having an altruistic shared interest, like volunteering to help women in tech!
Here are a few classic open-ended questions that work in almost any situation.
· “What brought you to this event?”
· “What did you find the most interesting about the event?”
· “Why did you get into this industry?”
· “What do you enjoy the most about what you do?”
· “What kinds of things do you want to do in the future?”
· “What kinds of trends are you seeing in your industry?”
· “What should people be paying attention to in your industry?”
· “How do you stay up to date in your industry?”
· “What advice would you give someone starting out in your industry?”
· “What is the best thing you have done in your industry?”
An underrated skill in networking is listening. You don’t have to be the chattiest one in the room or feel like you have all the answers. If anything, showing you listen and give space for everyone to speak is a sign you respect other people’s opinions and perspectives. And at the end of the day, people love to talk about themselves – ask questions, be engaged, and share how you connect to what they are saying.
WHEN YOU LEAVE THE CONVERSATION
If the conversation is coming to a natural conclusion or you just want to mingle with some other folks, don’t just walk away. That should be a given, but how should you respectfully move on?
Here are a couple of easy techniques to try:
1. Go grab a new drink or go to the bathroom and on the way back go find a new person or group to talk to. Don’t use this approach if people are expecting you to come back. But if you are in a group setting, this is a casual way to exit the conversation and reset before jumping into the next conversation.
2. If you see someone you want to talk to, like a speaker, just say that you’ve seen they are around and want to talk about X while they look free. You can invite the other person to join or just politely wrap up the conversation and exchange contacts for the future. You are at a networking event – people will understand that you will want to talk to more than just one person as they probably will want to as well.
The key thing is to never leave a conversation without finding a way to connect with the people you want to continue a professional relationship with. Simply ask:
“I’d love to stay connected so that I can follow up with [insert something you connected on]. What is your platform of choice?”
Your connection point could be a shared interest, an opportunity to collaborate, an event you can go to next together, or just say that you want to stay up to date with their journey.
And by specifying their platform of choice, you open up the follow-up connection in a way that is most comfortable for them. That may be through LinkedIn or via email or even social media accounts.
Top tip: Use the QR code and scanner on LinkedIn to even more quickly connect with people without the faff of typing in someone’s name.
So there you go! We’ve broken down the three parts of networking – the introduction, the conversation, and the exit. It’s not so intimidating when you have easy go-to phrases and techniques in your back pocket that you can pull out to navigate the experience.
The only thing you have to do now, is research your next local networking event and practice!